The Real Causes of Violence

Today’s news tells of a thwarted terrorist attack in the West Bank. Then of another terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps. [1]

That’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his new book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, giving voice to the feeling we’ve all had. In The Jewish Week, Editor Gary Rosenblatt denounces Arab incitement of attacks on Jews:

Clearly, the hatred at the core of such exhortations is religious, not political: the enemy is not just Israel, it’s the Jewish people. [2]

Both of them are right. And wrong.

Sacks is right that God weeps when humans become murderers. Rosenblatt is right that the target is the Jewish people. But both are wrong to lay the blame on religion.

I don’t have an easy solution to terrorism, violence, and hatred. There is no easy solution. But we can’t find any solution at all unless we correctly identify the problem. Religion is important, but it’s not the cause.

Trying to eliminate violence by eliminating religion is a waste of time. Worse, it diverts us from addressing the real causes:

  • Biological aggression triggers, and
  • Conflicting self-concepts.

Biological Aggression Triggers

Human beings are created in God’s image. We can think and we are self-aware. But we are also biological creatures whose bodies evolved through countless millennia of natural selection. [3]

Just like lower animals, we have biological impulses that helped our distant ancestors survive to produce offspring for the next generation. Those impulses incline us to trust, help and cooperate with people we perceive as our genetic relatives. In some situations, the impulses incline us to distrust, feel hostile, and act aggressively toward non-relatives.

Biologists call the phenomenon “kin selection.” They have observed it in a vast number of animal species, from insects to mammals.

Kin selection answers a simple question: Why do both humans and lower animals sometimes act altruistically? Why do they help others at the expense of their own safety and welfare?

Altruistic animals risk dying earlier than others, so they have fewer offspring. Non-altruists live longer and have more offspring. In a few generations, altruistic animals should disappear and the population should be dominated by “selfish” animals. But it hasn’t happened.

Then biologists noticed that when animals acted altruistically, it was often to benefit their relatives (kin): children, siblings, cousins, and the like. Relatives share more genes than the population as a whole. By helping their relatives, the animals were indirectly helping their altruistic genes make it into the next generation. [4]

Moreover, animals tend to treat non-relatives as a threat. Non-relatives compete with them and their relatives for mates and for food. As a result, animals often attack non-relatives who stray into their territory.

Humans Can Choose

None of this implies that human beings are merely animals. However, we do have the same biological impulses that incline lower animals to help their kin and to see non-kin as a threat.

Leviticus 19:14 tells us not to put a stumbling block in front of a blind person. Factors that trigger aggressive impulses are a stumbling block for us. They are a known weakness of human nature that leads to tragic consequences. If we know what the factors are, we can minimize the hatred and bloodshed they cause. Religion is not one of the factors.

Animals identify others as their kin if they: [5]

  • Are in a certain location,
  • Are already familiar,
  • Look like them, or
  • Act like them.

On a purely instinctive level, those cues prepare animals to help and cooperate with other animals that satisfy the cues. They’re not foolproof, but they work well enough. They prepare animals to fight or flee from other animals if they don’t satisfy the cues.

Unsurprisingly, scientists find that the same factors apply to human behavior. We unconsciously identify relatives and non-relatives by where they are, how they look, and how they act. That obviously includes how they dress, the language they speak, the beliefs they profess, and their physical appearance. The closer they seem to us genetically, the more inclined we are to help them. The further they seem from us, the more inclined we are to attack them.

Based on that identification, our impulses and emotions push us to react with friendship or hostility. Our minds then make up reasons for how we already feel. The reasons did not cause the feelings; the feelings made us find reasons to justify them:

Given the judgments (themselves produced by the non-conscious cognitive machinery in the brain, sometimes correctly, sometimes not so), human beings produce rationales they believe account for their judgments. But the rationales are only ex post rationalizations. [6]

Using our intelligence, we can override our impulses. However, if we are frequently exposed to aggression triggers, we need to override them. Day after day, our biology goes on red alert. We and adversaries must keep turning off the alarms. If either we or they fail to turn off an alarm, violence can result:

Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but *only with some people*. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation *between* groups. [7]

Conflicting Self-Concepts

There’s more to aggression than biology. Humans are thinking beings. They are self-aware. As they go through life, they form a conception of who and what they are. They form emotional attachments to perceived people, places, experiences, and behavior.

Sometimes, the attachments are so strong that people feel as if external things are part of their own identity. To almost any of us, an attack on a friend feels like an attack on us. An insult to our country, to our school, or to our favorite sports team feels like it was directed at us personally. A burglary of our home feels emotionally like a physical assault.

That’s why Palestinian Arabs, for example, become so violently enraged at the suggestion that Jews might pray at the Temple Mount. They not only believe that the Temple Mount belongs to them, but they feel that it’s part of who they are.

As far as they’re concerned, if we walk on the Temple Mount, we’re walking on them. Even though it’s not true, it’s how they feel. And when they launch terrorist attacks on innocent Israelis, they feel that they are striking back. It doesn’t justify them, but it does motivate them.

What We Can Do

We cannot eliminate violence and hatred completely. In any large population, a minority will become violent no matter what we do. A minority will hate. However, we can minimize people’s exposure to aggression triggers, whether biological or psychological. That would make most people less inclined to violence and hatred.

When it comes to triggering aggression, it’s not what happens that counts: it’s what people perceive as happening. Minimize exposure to the things that make people perceive threat or attack, and you minimize their feeling of being threatened or attacked.

To accomplish that goal requires good will, cooperation, and — let’s be honest — a certain amount of self-restraint or censorship. But if and when all sides — all sides — decide they’ve had enough hatred and bloodshed, it’s worth a try.

Works Cited

Greene, J. (2013), Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Them and Us. Penguin Press, New York. Kindle edition.

Haidt, J. (2012), The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Knopf Doubleday, New York. Kindle Edition.

Mayr, E. (2001), What Evolution Is. Basic Books, New York. Kindle edition.

Sacks, J. (2015), Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Schocken Books, New York.

Slater, P. and Halliday, T., editors (1994), Behaviour and Evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Workman, L. and Reader, W. (2014), Evolutionary Psychology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. Kindle edition.


  1. Sacks, J. (2015), p. 3.
  2. Rosenblatt, G., “God Weeps Over Religious Violence.” The Jewish Week, October 21, 2015.
  3. Mayr, E. (2001), loc. 3643.
  4. There’s even a formula (“Hamilton’s Rule”) to predict altruistic behavior: *c < rb*, where c is the cost to the altruist, r is how closely the two animals are related, and b is the benefit to the other animal. See Workman, L. (2014), loc. 4630.
  5. Slater, P. and Halliday, T. (1994), p. 209ff.
  6. Haidt, J. (2012), p. 50.
  7. Greene, J. (2013), p. 23.
About the Author
N.S. Palmer is a graduate student in Jewish Studies at Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has degrees in mathematics, economics, and philosophy. He is currently writing a book about Judaism and the role of religious belief in society.
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